Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Rise of the Meritocracy (1959)

Book Review from the February 1959 issue of the Socialist Standard

Society in 2034
When Swift, with satirical solemnity, suggested in his “Modest Proposals” that poverty in Ireland could be abolished by raising the children of the Irish poor for food, many at the time were shocked. The current suggestion that one day all children will be raised for fitting them to the rigid requirements of a stratified society evokes no great outcry, even though the consequences would be for humans as disastrous as if the “Modest Proposals” had been put into effect.

Dr. Young’s book, The Rise of the Meritocracy (publishers, Thomas and Hudson, 15s.) outlines such a future. By A.D. 2034 Britain is ruled by an intellectual elite, a mere 5 per cent, of the population, “who know what 5 per cent, means.” It is no longer wealth assets but Intelligence Quotient assessment which fixes people’s place in society. All social philosophy is compressed into the formula, l.Q. + Effort = Merit. I.Q. prediction has been pushed back into the womb and the job of the educator is to train these “womb products” at the appropriate level. A society, presumably, where there will be equality of opportunity for everyone to become unequal.

But this exclusion of the many brings frustration and resentment among the masses, who are too stupid to realise that they have been placed in that station of life to which it has pleased their I.Q. destiny to call them. Certain intellectuals, mostly women, to whom the Meritocracy is anathema, excite the mob to revolt. The climax is reached when the Ministry of Education is gutted, a call made for a general strike as well as a great May Day demonstration to be held at Peterloo. The dissident intellectuals also frame a charter demanding, among other things, retention of primary schools, raising of the school age to eighteen and common secondary schools for all.

The book takes the form of a history of the use of the Meritocracy by an unnamed sociologist who is killed at Peterloo before he has time to submit the proofs that in a competitive world where other nations have made the Meritocracy the essence of the Establishment, social survival is only, possible by perpetuating the l.Q. way of life.

Government by the Super-Intelligent
Dr. Young’s satire is apparently a warning against what he thinks might be the outcome of present trends and widely held beliefs. First, that the working class is in economic and cultural decline; that there is a fixed and limited potential of intelligence and that these limited intellectual resources must be efficiently utilised by rigid educational discrimination if we are to hold our own against other nations.

The logic of events would seem to indicate a world controlled by “experts” and “specialists.” The dissolving of the present class structure and the emergence of a new two class system of high I.Q.s and low I.Q.s based finally by continuous selection and breeding on an hereditary principle. The only thing against Dr. Young’s views is that there is no evidence of such trends which point in the direction he adumbrates.

Dr. Young’s account of how the present ruling class is cajoled, indoctrinated and finally liquidated is thoroughly unconvincing. It is a shadowy world where politicians, psychologists, pundits and pedagogues possess enormous power and the complex character of capitalism is reduced to the dimensions of a Meccano set, whose parts can be interchanged in a most arbitrary fashion. The Aladdin’s lamp of the old technocrats’ fantasy is introduced as a device to help the story and the genie is, of course, “automation.” The ruling class—the high I.Q.s,—get enormous incomes and the low I.Q.s live quite comfortably, although, due to labour displacement, many become domestic servants. This may be good fun, but it is bad satire.

There is not the slightest evidence to show that the present ruling class is losing its grip and that effective power is passing into the hands of “experts” and “specialists” of attested I.Q. ability. History knows no ruling class that has voluntarily abdicated its power or has been persuaded out of it by those whose services it employs. The ability of a ruling class to rule is not basically a question of I.Q. assessments, but consists of tradition, cultural inheritance and social practice. A ruling class learns to rule by ruling. And the present ruling class has learned it well. It cannot, as Dr. Young imagines, be reduced to an instructed art or science. Again, people like Lloyd George, Churchill, Macmillan and many others have a knowledge of affairs born out of certain circumstances and experience not amenable to I.Q. prediction and perhaps inaccessible to I.Q. testers.

Fallacious Argument
An instructive part of the book, although perhaps not in the way the author intended, is when the dissident intellectuals of the Meritocracy argue that “people ought to be evaluated not merely in terms of their intelligence and education, but for their kindliness, courage, generosity, etc. And that people should have an opportunity to rise not in any mathematical sense but to each develop his special capacities for leading a rich life. Then we should have the classless society.” But why should sensibility, sensitivity, sympathy and ability to co-operate be excluded from intelligence rating?. The answer lies in the assumptions of present society about the nature of intelligence. In a society like the present one we have been taught to think of intelligence in a most unintelligent way, as something absolute and fixed. The most useful thing we can say about intelligence is that it is inseparably connected with the learning process. Given encouragement, sympathy and the appropriate conditions, people can go on learning all their lives. These prerequisites are gravely handicapped in present society. To-day the authorised pursuit of knowledge takes the form of the rat race of scholarships or later competitive exams, where concepts of status and privilege become the prime stimulus.

So far as the educational system becoming a power in itself, it only makes sense in the light of the requirements of capitalism, i.e., by fashioning the raw material of working class children into the manufactured article required by employers. Education, like charity, is still for the deserving poor. This may offend starry-eyed educationalists dedicated to some abstract principle of education, but they are the facts. Mental testers, administrators and teachers are only doing what capitalist society requires them to do. Many teachers, we believe, recognise this, but there is little they can do about it in practice.

Equality and Equality of Opportunity
Apparently the high I.Q. reformers of the Meritocracy have learned nothing from the reformers of the past—no, not even that they have learned nothing. They want a classless society based on the poetic sentiment of “something nearer to the heart’s desire" ignoring the fact that a privileged society conditions hearts, among other things. The latter day egalitarians, like the earlier ones, try to apply the concept of equality in a social context profoundly unequal. They even confuse themselves and others by equating equality with equality of opportunity, which is, of course, one of the major contemporary confusions. But in a privileged society opportunities are not born free and equal, and the demand for it is the demand of the underprivileged. The demand by Labour egalitarians for equality of opportunity merely turns out to be an opportunity of inequality. That is their dilemma.

We shall, of course, never grasp what human equality really means until we recognise where the source of inequalities lies, i.e., in the ownership of existing wealth resources by a privileged few.

Keeping up with the I.Q. of the Joneses
In a truly classless, society, where all members freely and equally participate in the life and work of the community, the term equality will cease to have meaning; it will have become dissolved into the every-day life and practice of social organisation. There will be no exclusion from above or inclusion from below. People will not be chosen, but do the choosing. As always when people are allowed to choose, they are for the most part sensible about it. In a classless society people will be able to freely avail themselves of a variation of choices and so richly utilise their various capacities. There will be no attempt to shape other people’s lives on some arbitrary intelligence model.
 
In spite of their high I.Q.S, the rulers of the Meritocracy are crass victims of their own ideology, where status and prestige are the ultimate values, and where the chosen themselves have no choice in the matter. A society where it seems families will emblazon their escutcheons not with a coat-of-arms but with I.Q. assessments, a kind of intellectual variation of keeping up with the Joneses. At least the present ruling class have a more intelligent view of the sources of their power and the reason for keeping those sources.

The book is a fusion of elements of Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World and Burnham’s Managerial Revolution, and a rehash to a large extent of the Superman theory of the dead thinker, Shaw. Dead in more senses than one. Like many more, the author is so busy reading the future that he misses what is going on under his very nose. He looks for problems that are not really there, instead of solutions which are right here. i.e., the supersession of present-day profit motivated society for one based on free and equal access to the means of living.

The story of Meritocracy is the story of push-button capitalism and where every push-button country is furiously in competition with every other push-button country, although why, we are never told. The author has a naive belief in the miraculous powers of increased productivity via technocracy and science. For him all human problems are really technical problems which men may fail to master and so produce the Frankenstein of the Meritocracy.

It is a twice-told tale, first told more than half a century ago. There is no more human evidence or non-human evidence for believing it now than for believing it then.

As a book it belongs more properly to science fiction than to a serious social work.
Ted Wilmott


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